With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the news, it seems we’ve heard almost nothing about the flu this season.
There’s good reason for that. The flu has been almost nonexistent this winter.
“Flu cases have been significantly down this year. We anticipated that,” said Syed Zaidi, MD, a family practice physician with OSF Medical Group.
Dramatic declines in flu cases
Dr. Zaidi acknowledged he and his colleagues prepared for the worst: a full-blown influenza season on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. But those fears have not materialized.
In fact, early statistics show a dramatic decline in the number of flu cases confirmed and treated throughout the United States since the traditional season began in September.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that less than 1% of clinical specimens tested positive for influenza in mid-winter this season, compared to more than 25% at the same time in 2020.
Flu vaccines are way up
“The numbers that have been down have been largely due to the number of vaccinations through community health care systems and community pharmacies,” Dr. Zaidi said.
The CDC reports that more than 192 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed before the end of December 2020, the highest number ever distributed in the United States during a single flu season. That number was more than 20 million greater than given through all of the 2019-20 season.
Health care providers’ optimism about this flu season was driven by those big increases in vaccinations. But the proof of effectiveness has been witnessed in the reduced number of sick patients.
“Typically, fevers, cough, colds and runny nose are on our radar all the time by now,” Dr. Zaidi said. “Have I seen flu cases in my office? Yes. Would I say weekly? No.”
Healthy habits work
Annual influenza vaccines are the best way to prevent illness, but other factors also contribute to the decline in severity of this flu season. The reasons are related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Typically, schools are a primary incubator for flu, as children get exposed, get sick and bring it home with them. With many school buildings closed, or offering limited access in hybrid learning models, fewer kids are getting sick.
In addition, children and adults alike have adopted healthy habits. The same 3 Ws – wearing a facemask, washing your hands and watching your physical distance from other people – that help protect us from COVID-19 also help prevent the spread of other diseases.
“When we start to value our health every day and we start to worry about our vulnerable – whether it’s our children or our parents – we tend to make more sound, knowledgeable decisions,” Dr. Zaidi said.